Monthly Archives: February 2013

Ensuring a free and fair conference

Dear Comrades,

Rules for aggregates:

1. The aggregate is open to all registered members who joined before the calling of the special conference (Saturday 9 February). Comrades who have joined after this date cannot attend, or vote or stand for election. Aggregate organisers will be sent a list of members. If you do not receive this list 48 hours before the meeting, please contact the national office. If someone is not on the list, they cannot come in.

2. There should be a registration desk as people arrive at the aggregate. Everyone needs to be checked as they arrive. This may need two people to speed things up. If people have not yet re-registered (the lists will tell you this) they should be asked to do so and increase their subs (or start them if they’re not paying), at this point.

3. Comrades may only attend the aggregate for the district in which they are a member (unless they are the CC or faction speakers). Comrades may only stand for election in the district in which they are a member.

4. The faction is allowed a speech of six minutes, taken immediately after the CC introduction. There is no summing-up speech from the faction.

5. Aggregate organisers will be sent the name of the faction speaker by the national office. If you do not know this 24 hours before the meeting, please contact the national office.

6. Some comrades have asked if they can vote in the meeting to vary these rules – not to have the faction speak, or to allow a longer faction speech. Please do not do this. The procedure set out here allows the faction its rights, and we urge all aggregates to stick to it.

7. Give everyone arriving a copy of the CC motion to special conference which was sent out to all members yesterday and is attached.

8. Set time limits for speakers from the floor in order to give everyone a fair chance of speaking. Do not allow anyone to speak for a second time until everyone has had their chance to speak for the first time.

9. Ballot papers should be distributed at the beginning of the meeting and the process explained clearly by the chair at the start of the meeting. Ballot paper should be collected at the end and either counted immediately or taken for counting by an agreed person.

10. NC members go to conference automatically, without voting rights. They can stand to be delegates.

11. Anyone who stands for election and is not elected cannot then ask to go as an observer. The only exception to this is NC members who can still come to conference without voting rights even if they stand for election and are not successful.

12. Ensure the meeting is conducted in a comradely way and that everyone is heard with respect. [I can’t believe I said that with a straight face – CK]

As people arrive for the aggregate, please ask them to re-register to the SWP and to sign up for Marxism and make them aware of other local and national activities. Subs-drive and Marxism forms can be given to the CC member to bring back to the office.


Sir Charles Kimber Bt

National Secretary


Filed under Left Politics

Another brick in the wall

SWSS don't need no thought control

SWSS don’t need no thought control

Here’s an interesting aspect of the current faction fight. As ever, there’s an element of randomness in how people line up – in any faction fight, alignments are very often forged on the basis of where you live or who you’re friendly with rather than strict ideological considerations – but there are still discernible differences between the two camps, in age, geography and occupational profile. Actually, since there are few strictly political questions at stake – despite some long-term background tensions, the fight as such revolves entirely around how the party leadership dealt with the Delta case – these are very striking indeed.

One thing that’s struck your author is the interesting composition of the IDOOP faction. Of course they have the students, overwhelmingly. But not only the students, not by any means. There are recent ex-CC members, some of the party’s sharpest thinkers, not to mention veteran comrades, some of whom have been in the party for forty or fifty years. So it doesn’t simply break down as a split between the student organisation and the adult party. Looking at the more experienced members of the faction, you could easily put together a Central Committee from their ranks that’s more credible than the incumbent one.

(Parenthetically, there are some very surprising people in the faction – not to disrespect them, but people who’ve been in the party for decades and never been oppositional. Some still seem a little bemused that they’re in a faction, or as Cliff might have put it, “he is a fish out of water and you can’t make him drink”.)

Okay, so the students are explicable. The veterans are also explicable, in that they’ve devoted many many years of their lives to building the SWP, only to see the leadership seemingly determined to piss it all away. But what of the other side? What of the CC’s undeclared posse of loyalists, the I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-A-Faction?

There is, again, a very definite profile there, at least when you strip out the fulltime party workers. Certain districts are more loyal than others of course, but it’s the age and occupational profile that’s most striking. The List of Shame reveals a very strong bias towards members of the NUT, UCU and PCS; and, from my own knowledge of the people involved, they’re very much the Downturn generation, people who joined in the 1980s predominantly. Actually, rather few of the teachers did join through NUT militancy – they generally joined as students and stuck with the party as they went into the teaching profession.

Anyone familiar with the internal workings of the SWP will be aware that this layer of membership has traditionally been the most fanatically loyal to whatever wheeze is emanating from the CC at any given point in time. There’s also scope for an anthropological study of SWP teachers, who both form a relatively privileged freemasonry in the party and simultaneously have a masochistic tendency to defer to the most boorish and overbearing elements of the apparat. On a rhetorical level, this manifests itself in a buttock-clenchingly stentorian “Leninism” that’s slightly over the top even by SWP standards. One recalls the late James D Young who talked about a type of party discipline that wasn’t innate but cultivated, and really was little more than an attempt to dignify middle-class elitism.

Anyway, we’re seeing this in some of the stuff coming out of the CC’s Not-A-Faction right at the moment. Yes, there’s the inevitable and depressing attempt to frame this whole thing as a defence of Bolshevism against the Menshevik opposition. And it’s melding with the CC’s usual response to critics (though it works better with individual critics than a sizable opposition), which is to say that if you don’t like how the leadership runs the party, you should just get out of the party. It’s that sort of small-business proprietorial attitude that gives democratic centralism a bad name.

And so we arrive at the rhetorical weaponry being loosed off at the students at present. There’s a report in the Weekly World Worker News that tallies well with what I’m hearing independently. Notable is the reference to a conference motion from Tottenham branch – specifically from two longstanding and well-respected comrades who’ve lined up behind the CC – which is being given wide circulation in the party. I reproduce it below, because it’s quite revealing [my emphases]:

Taking the long view

We are now in the 7th year of a worldwide capitalist crisis. The depth of the crisis in countries such as Greece is leading to deep polarisation between the left and the Fascist right.  The UK is in a triple dip recession.  There are no signs of any serious recovery.

The history of our party (and of the Bolsheviks and indeed other organisations in our tendency) prove the need for a unified, Leninist organisation which can provide a revolutionary pole of attraction for the working class.

There is a huge fear amongst our comrades that if we are too hard in holding the positions democratically won at our conference, branches and elected national committee we will lose many of the young student members of our organisation. None of us want that to happen. However, we also have to be clear that whilst engaging in a political argument to win and keep as many comrades as possible, we cannot hold on to members at a political price which will fundamentally damage our ability to organise in the working class.

New students arrive at colleges every year.  If we raise the level of politics to fit the present situation the SWP can recruit and develop layers of Marxist students successfully.

To preserve a revolutionary current in this country for the inevitable struggles ahead we need to ensure that we fight to win all comrades to a democratic centralist position in practise as well as in name. And, at the same time, we need to demand and enforce with discipline if necessary  the right of the majority of members to have decisions respected and our action to be unified. Without that we cannot effectively move forward in this epoch of crises, wars and revolutions.

Proposed: Anna G

Seconded: Alan W

Tottenham Branch

Let’s leave aside the flannel about war and fascism and economic crisis. That belongs to the emotional blackmail school of argument to which CC loyalists are much addicted, and which takes the form of “Fascism is on the march in Greece! Therefore you must support the resolution on the Disputes Committee!!!” The most striking thing in this motion, which has been tabled by two comrades who should really know better, is the clear implication that the students are expendable. There’s a logic behind this, though a slightly crazy one, and it’s reflective of the arguments being put forward by CC loyalists, though whether the CC believes them is anyone’s guess.

Two things. One is that the SWP leadership still hasn’t got over the technophobia it displayed in the mid-1990s, when party leaders were prone to describe the internet as a passing fad that would never take off. This was justified by a lot of cod-proletarian verbiage about the internet being inherently elitist because only a few people had access to it – at one point, if memory serves, Professor Nostradamus said that anyone who worked with a VDU was by definition middle-class. This is obviously an outmoded attitude when the large majority of the population has internet access, but it still lingers on. There’s a view promoted that, while students are obsessed with blogs and Facebook and suchlike, this is just online froth, ephemera that are of no interest to the working class. Actually, that’s how Lenin’s Tomb got going, by sailing under the radar of a leadership that didn’t take the internet seriously. Obviously, it’s not really tenable in our hyperconnected society.

The second is the rather dismissive point made by Anna and Alan above, which is that there will always be another batch of students coming along. But this is based on a misapprehension of the SWP’s ecology. For many years now, the party has relied on recruiting a sizable number of students every October – the majority will soon drop out, but if 800 are recruited and 300 of those hang around, that will be enough to make up the party’s losses and maintain headcount.

There’s also an aspect that former leaderships understood very well. One of the less attractive features of the party Cliff built was the theory of the “conservative block”, that older members are necessarily cautious, conservative, if not just tired and burned out, whereas the fresh recruits from the colleges were the real raw revolutionaries. This theory was first given an airing by Cliff in the 1970s, and didn’t improve with age. In practice, it meant that more experienced and knowledgeable members – who had an annoying tendency to think for themselves, and required convincing before going along with the CC’s latest get-rich-quick scheme – could simply be dispensed with, and the students used as shock troops against them. Sure, you’d lose valuable knowledge and experience, but when you had Cliff and Harman in the leadership, that was all the knowledge and experience the party needed. Again, this wasn’t a very useful approach when Cliff and Harman were alive (and they were relatively sparing with it), much less so nowadays when the sitting CC doesn’t have their great strengths.

What hasn’t been the case before now is that the party has driven out the students. In fact, the old-time leadership was very careful not to do so, sometimes making unjustified concessions to trendy ideas on campus. This can’t be stressed enough – the colleges are the main transmission belt into the party. This should be an obvious point to the fortysomething teachers in the CC faction, the vast majority of whom were recruited at college. And this also relies on there being a critical mass of students around – if there is no SWSS group at a particular university, adult party members (not least district organisers) would have a hard time rebuilding them from scratch. Let us also not forget that student members, having time and energy going for them, shoulder a disproportionate amount of the party’s activity. You need the critical mass in the colleges. But if we’re to go by the five or so students out of the 500 names on the List of Shame, the SWP leadership seems determined to reduce its college presence down to the scale of the Spartacist League.

And this flags up just how weird the CC’s unstated perspective is. Not only do they take the view that their gruesome mishandling of a rape allegation is just internet froth of no interest to anyone but students; they further think that, hey, students have no memory, and if we lost almost the entirety of SWSS next month, well, another lot will be along in October and we can just pick up where we left off with a more malleable student organisation. This is assuming students are too stupid to use Google and find out about the group that wants to recruit them.

Well, it may be a comfort blanket for some of the more unthinking CC factionalists. But can the leadership really be so deluded as to think this will work? Seriously?


Filed under Left Politics

The uses of paranoia

The Professor contemplates his next move

The King’s College Professor of European Studies contemplates his next move

Readers of a certain age may remember the late Mehmet Shehu. Or possibly you’ve read Ismail Kadare’s classic novel The Successor, which is closely based on the Shehu story. For everyone else, here’s a potted biography.

Mehmet Shehu was a legend of the communist resistance in Albania during the Second World War, a Spanish Civil War veteran whose personal courage, ferocity in battle and skills as a military tactician were invaluable in ending the Nazi occupation of the country. Which is not to say that Shehu was a nice man. After liberation, he became the number two figure in Enver Hoxha’s über-Stalinist dictatorship, serving as prime minister for 27 years and gaining a reputation for being even more brutal than Hoxha, if such a thing is possible.

All this ended on 17 December 1981, when Albanian state media announced that the prime minister had committed suicide. It’s widely supposed, however, that he was in fact murdered on Hoxha’s orders; a theory supported by the fact that his entire extended family were rounded up and imprisoned, and that histories of wartime Albania were summarily pulped to remove all reference to Shehu’s military prowess, with his victories being retrospectively reassigned to Hoxha. Well, if it was a purge, Shehu himself had plenty of experience of conducting purges.

What lends this a bizarre postscript is that the following year Hoxha published his book Titoites, which contained an extremely long and extremely strange harangue to the effect that Shehu, for pretty much all of his forty-year association with Hoxha, had been a quadruple agent, a sort of Kim Philby squared, in the pay of the CIA, the KGB and Yugoslav intelligence. While this is just about possible – anything’s possible in Balkan politics – it can perhaps be seen as the definitive sign that Uncle Enver had gone completely doolally, and his paranoia about malign foreign forces, manifested by the 700,000 bunkers dotting the country to ward off invasion, had reached certifiable proportions.

All right, you say. That’s an episode from the history of Stalinism, and a peculiarly weird Balkan version of Stalinism at that. What’s it got to do with the price of fish?

Let us now turn to that disgraceful old man Gerry Healy, as remembered by his former American franchisee Tim Wohlforth, now better known as a writer of mystery novels. In the mid-1970s Wohlforth’s group, the Workers League, had been pushed to the point of disintegration by Tim’s over-enthusiastic implementation of Gerry’s bright ideas. At this point the Master of Dialectic made a great logical breakthrough that will serve well as an illustration of how Healy’s mind worked:

P1. The Workers League is collapsing;

P2. The CIA would quite like the Workers League to collapse;

C. It therefore stands to reason that Tim Wohlforth is a CIA agent.

To the rational observer, the conclusion does not at all flow from the premises, but Healy put his case so forcefully that Wohlforth was indeed removed from management of the US franchise. Indeed, in a scene reminiscent of Darkness At Noon, Tim was actually prevailed upon to vote for his own expulsion.

Healy, who like many sect gurus had the entrepreneurial instincts of a small businessman, was so pleased at the success of this wheeze that he went on to make a cottage industry of it. Soon he was embroiled in the grotesque Security and the Fourth International campaign, which largely consisted of Healy, abetted by his new American wunderkind Dave North, defaming everyone on the left who’d ever disagreed with Healy as an agent of the KGB, the CIA or, if you’d particularly displeased the great man, both.

Now, these are extreme cases. And if I’m being honest, one of the things I liked about Cliff was that he very sensibly saw that a spy-hunting atmosphere could do more damage than an actual spy. “If there is a spy,” he’d say, “at least we can be sure of getting good work out of him.” So at least one feature of the current crisis is that there’s been a relative lack of one side denouncing the other as state agents. This would not necessarily be the case in other traditions.

Not a complete lack, though. The Pre-Conference Bulletins contained a rather strange contribution from Donny Gluckstein (who really should know better) musing about the importance of the party keeping its internal workings private, with reference to the security services’ apparent desire to smash up the SWP. Now, even if we think the security services would consider it worth the effort to smash up a small party that’s already doing a good job of smashing itself up… it’s very likely that the spooks are well aware of the party’s inner workings. The leadership’s fetish for operating as if it was an underground movement trying to overthrow Tsar Nikolai only succeeds in keeping things secret from its own members. Which, a cynic might suppose, is very handy for said leadership.

It’s also the case that one of the CC faction’s attack dogs, the charming Mr Simon Assaf, has recently developed a penchant for trying to finger oppositionists as police narks. One hopes this isn’t the start of a trend.

No, there’s a story here involving paranoia and how it feeds into the atrocious mishandling of the Delta case, but it’s a slightly different sort of paranoia. And it has to do with infighting in the leadership over the last decade or so.

That bloke who presents Timeline on the Islam Channel

That bloke who presents Timeline on the Islam Channel

As we know, the CC likes to observe a sort of cabinet responsibility, always presenting a united face to the members. Behind the scenes, it isn’t like that at all. The CC is in fact severely factionalised and has been for as long as anyone can remember. Even when Cliff was still with us, workers at the centre were well aware that the weekly CC meeting not infrequently degenerated into a shouting match; on occasion, the late Julie Waterson would emerge ashen-faced and in urgent need of a drink. All that cabinet responsibility meant in practice is that knowledge of divisions at the top was confined to a thinnish layer of comrades on the inside track.

This has led over recent years to some quite strange political gyrations. Let’s go back to the Respect split in 2007, which people should be remembering as some of the same tactics were played out then. You will recall that this blew up when George Galloway, discovering that the administration of Respect was a little on the shambolic side, made some mild criticisms of then Respect national secretary John Rees, and even (the horror!) suggested appointing someone else to work alongside Rees, someone who hadn’t alienated as many people. Immediately, the SWP CC pressed the nuclear button and moved to smash up Respect. It seemed that they were prepared to tolerate old Gallows sucking up to Saddam Hussein or impersonating a cat on Big Brother, but not criticising John Rees. That was intolerable.

At the time, the SWP CC was unanimous, indeed ferociously so, in holding to the position that criticism of Rees was a witch-hunt of the party, and had to be totally resisted even if that meant torpedoing the entire Respect project. So rank-and-file members were somewhat baffled in 2009 when the CC abruptly dumped Rees, and heaped a whole lot of opprobrium on his head for the failures of recent years. (Though, touchingly, they still argued that that they had been correct to break up Respect in response to Galloway’s ‘witch-hunt’.) And so born-again anti-Reesism became the unanimous position of the CC, and Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.

On reflection, this seems rather silly. One knows the CC likes its aura of infallibility, but would it really have killed them to admit that Chris Harman didn’t like John Rees very much and had serious doubts about the Respect project? Those in the know were well aware.

Anyway, this is all by way of background. Because, as you know, John Rees, Lindsey German and that indie drummer whose name escapes me departed the SWP in 2010 to form Counterfire, whom I am told do the finest ham and cheese sandwiches on the British left. The following year their CC ally Chris Bambery also left to form his own Scotland-based group (although Chris is still resident in London, weirdly enough). In neither case were the numbers leaving big – though they were enough to form viable groups – but, and this is the important point, the CC has retained not merely an animosity (which may be understandable) but a quite unreasonable fear of the departed leaders.

The timing is an issue here. Delta, a CC member at the time, was heavily involved in both leading the charge against the Reesite-Germanite Counter-Revolutionary Centre and also in driving through the post-Rees perspective. But what happened in between the departures of Rees and German on the one hand, and Bambery on the other? What scandal began to break in the latter half of 2010? You’ve guessed it.

This puts into perspective a curious aspect of The Transcript. We find this remark from Candy Udwin on observing confidentiality:

Unfortunately information about this complaint wasn’t kept confidential in the way that we had asked. In fact, people outside the party, such as Chris Bambery, members of Counterfire, members in Unite Against Fascism, who then told Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of PCS – all these people knew about the case within a week of the hearing, before we’d even finished our final report. Now that is obviously unacceptable, but it also, we understand, put comrades in an extremely difficult position, because they were having to defend something that they hadn’t heard about from the party.

And later we have this from Pat Stack:

The idea that Bambery or Counterfire would get hold of any information about this case is something that fills me with horror.

On first reading your author thought “Hold on, Pat, that’s the very last thing you should be horrified by.” And yet…

The case was being very widely gossiped about on the SWP’s unofficial grapevine. And it’s one thing to want to protect the anonymity of Comrade W, to which she is absolutely entitled; the fact remains that details did become known, and the shocking inadequacy of the party’s response, combined with an insistence on strict secrecy (and combined, we might add, with the leadership brazenly lying to the members) stoked up speculation even further.

Now, put this in the middle of a quite febrile factional atmosphere. Some people in the CC camp got the idea, and seriously convinced themselves of this, that the whole thing was a Counterfire sting operation, that this was John and Lindsey and Chris making their final play to retake the party. Some people actually believed this flapdoodle; others knew the truth, but were prepared to quite cynically use the factional atmosphere to deflect attention from the leadership’s monstrous mishandling of the case.

Was any of this plausible? Give it a moment’s thought, and it doesn’t really pass the smell test. Do we need to believe that Chris Bambery was leaking from the CC, something he denies? Enough people in the affected district knew about the case, and there are also those modern inventions like “e-mail” and “the inter-net” which so baffle Charlie Kimber, and allow news to spread like wildfire. Equally, is it necessary to believe that every mishap to befall a CC member is a Counterfire plot? Not at all. Those guys know the SWP’s senior cadre inside out. They know who’s a drunk, who’s a shagger, who’s a stoner, who’s got chronic money problems. They may conceivably be willing to stir the shit, but they don’t actually need to run elaborate stings that would tax the abilities of much bigger organisations. As I’ve said, the SWP is quite capable of disrupting itself.

But this paranoid atmosphere may actually help to explain how a situation that was almost impossible to handle well ended up being handled so unspeakably badly. And, among the ranks of the CC loyalist faction, the paranoia now seems to be reaching clinical proportions. Professor Nostradamus, with his talk of lynch mobs and of a grand cabal of Richard Seymour, Historical Materialism and the ISO who want to force the comrades to read Bob Jessop… it really doesn’t bode well if the party’s most distinguished intellectual is doing an uncannily accurate impersonation of Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory.


Filed under Left Politics

The age gap, and why it matters

There are a lot of things that could be said about the current SWP crisis, but it seems appropriate for the moment to return to the main issue, the trigger for the explosion.  Because if we’re to remain human, the one thing we need to keep reminding ourselves of is that there’s a vulnerable young woman at the centre of the storm, and whatever other issues may be relevant, it’s outrage over how she was treated that is fuelling the rebellion.

The most important development is that Comrade W’s age has now become known. And this is important. It’s perhaps the most disturbing detail so far to emerge that she was 17 when her relationship with Delta began. That’s seventeen years old. At the time when the incidents (plural) of rape are alleged to have occurred, she was still only 19. Most people, possessed of a functioning sense of morality, will instantly see what was wrong here. But perhaps it’s worth explaining.

Actually, the transcript of the Disputes Committee session at conference does touch on this issue. Here is a cryptic comment from Candy Udwin:

We also however thought it was important to be clear that the disputes committee doesn’t exist to police moral, er, bourgeois morality, so we agreed that issues that weren’t relevant to us were whether the comrade was monogamous, whether they were having an affair, whether the age differences in their relationship, because as revolutionaries we didn’t consider that should be our remit to consider issues such as those.

The very fact that Candy feels the need to say that the age difference is of no importance actually demonstrates that it is terribly important. But for the hard of thinking, let’s go over it again.

Although we’re living in a feminist age where young women are supposed to have agency and autonomy and all that stuff, the fact remains that a 17-year-old is in many ways still a child. Kids that age are very often naïve and impressionable, and, despite the age of consent being 16, the likelihood of a 17-year-old being emotionally equipped to make responsible decisions about sex is not great. It’s by no means uncommon for a girl of that age to embark on a relationship and then, two or three years later, think, “Hold on, I’ve been going to bed with this guy and I really didn’t want to.” That’s why, if we assume it’s inevitable that teenagers are going to make mistakes, it’s better they make mistakes with other teenagers. Teenage boys can be rough enough without throwing adults with a jailbait fetish into the mix.

There’s also a good reason why, although the age of consent in mainland Britain stands at 16, as per the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 it’s 18 in cases involving particular categories of responsible adult, notably teachers. It’s because power relationships come into play as well. A teenage girl is less likely than, say, a woman in her thirties to be able to tell a man to fuck off, particularly if that man is in a position of authority over her.

Students know this instinctively. That’s why SWSS is almost entirely in opposition to the party leadership. It could easily have been one of them; no, in fact, it was one of them. I also have a sneaking suspicion, though this may be just cynicism talking, that this was a factor in Comrade W not being allowed to speak to conference. Enough delegates were stunned by the DC report as it was, so much so that over a fifth of delegates didn’t even register a vote in that session; how much greater would the shock have been if they’d been able to see for themselves how young she was?

The most important thing right now, before any factionalism comes into play, is that Comrade W is getting all the emotional and practical support she needs – the support that she thought she could count on from the party leadership. Any attempt to guilt-trip her, to suggest that the party is collapsing and it’s all her fault, would be unconscionable. In fact the crisis is the fault of the apparatchiks who treated her appallingly.

Now, there is a further aspect to this. Let’s leave aside for the moment the absurdity of the Disputes Committee acting as if it’s a revolutionary court in Cuba, or the pretence that the SWP’s internal tribunals are inherently superior to a proper legal process. It makes more sense to view the party’s disciplinary procedures as analogous to those of a professional body – say, those tribunals that exist to strike off dodgy doctors or lawyers – and the corollary of that, which I think only Pat Stack grasped on the DC, is that it makes sense to apply a civil rather than a criminal standard. That is, determining that something is probable rather than that it has been proved beyond reasonable doubt.

So, even if the DC feels it can’t establish rape – which, as we’ve discussed, is a crime even the state’s criminal justice system finds difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt – that shouldn’t close the case. The proper thing for the DC to adjudicate is whether or not a party member has behaved in a way that would bring the party into disrepute. And common sense dictates that party leaders should be held to a higher standard than the rank and file, though in the SWP it often seems like it’s the other way around.

We therefore have not only the question of whether sexual behaviour was consensual – we also have the question, rather easier to answer, of whether it was appropriate, and this should take into account the prestige surrounding the leadership in an extremely hierarchical and status-conscious organisation. To my mind, a party leader treating the party as his personal harem is just as inappropriate as a party treasurer embezzling the funds. For a party leader pushing fifty – and not a well-preserved fifty either – to be conducting a sexual relationship with a teenage girl in the ranks is not appropriate for a party leader. Given the extreme age gap and the power relations involved, it’s definitely sleazy and it certainly seems predatory. Even on the most benign interpretation, we’re talking about a Monica Lewinsky scenario here. And let’s not forget that Monica Lewinsky, whose only crime was to be young, silly and infatuated, ended up being smeared by the Clinton people as a stalker and fantasist, and cold-shouldered by feminists who thought that defending the Clinton administration trumped all other considerations.

This shouldn’t be too difficult to grasp. There are lots of teachers in the SWP. They know that conducting a sexual relationship with a student could cost them their jobs and lead to them being blacklisted from the profession, and they know why these rules are in place. They also know that if you are unable to resist the temptation to try it on with the students, you should be in another profession entirely.

Nor should we forget the allegation of sexual harassment brought by Comrade X, another young woman, against Delta. For raising these concerns, she was effectively demoted. Any trade union rep – of whom there are many in the party – knows you don’t deal with a harassment claim by punishing the complainant. In fact, most businesses, public sector bodies and unions have well-developed harassment policies. It seems to be only the revolutionary left that maintains a 1970s office culture that would make Gene Hunt blush. And experienced comrades will know that this culture goes well beyond what has been made public so far.

Considering the range of knowledge of these issues in the SWP ranks – and frankly, if this sort of thing was going on in a capitalist company, SWP stewards would be calling the workers out on strike until it was sorted out – it really is extraordinary that the CC is willing to drive the party onto the rocks to protect one man who has comprehensively revealed himself to be a sleazy old pervert. The question of why the CC is protecting Delta is a fascinating subject in itself that will require further examination. But it’s thoroughly depressing that so many party members are willing to go along with this.

Scrolling down the List of Shame and checking off those signatories who are familiar to me, there are a lot of people in their forties and fifties on that list – actually, that’s the majority age profile. There’s a very simple question that can and should be posed to them: “Would you let your daughter join the SWP?”


Filed under Left Politics

A note concerning the SWP and rank and fileism: principles and recent experiences

Below is a document put forward for discussion by a comrade who prefers to remain anonymous at present.

The IS approach to building in the unions requires some brief clarification in terminology. When Rank and Fileism is referred to we are talking about the formation of an organised tendency within a specific union that is linked to the revolutionary organisation but consists of union militants not all of whom are members of the organisation. Rank and file bodies however are simply those bodies within the movement which are not part of the union hierarchy in particular strike committees, Workers Committees which begin to transcend being simply union bodies and gather around them political functions, and finally Joint Shop Stewards Committees in earlier days. The Minority Movement, which was led by the CPGB, being the model of a political rank and file organisation. Broad Lefts by contrast are organised tendencies within specific unions that aim above all else to elect left wingers into union positions.

The origins of the IS/SWP approach to the unions goes back to before 1914 and the syndicalist revolt, the experience of dual unions, moves through the Workers Committees of WW1 and can then be seen in a more rounded form in the early Minority Movement associated with the CPGB in its heroic period. Early discussions by IS theorists and historians of the rank and file base themselves on these experiences almost exclusively only later in the 1970s were the later experiences of the CPGB looked at in a more or less positive light and even then the influence of Stalinism in wrecking their work in the unions was usually drawn out explicitly.

Each of these successive movements was based on the rising power of the shop stewards in the production process which being based on piece work granted them considerable power. In turn the JSSC’s and Workers Committees derived considerable power from their member stewards. These bodies were, of course, unofficial and outside the structures of the unions which were still often craft based. Apart from the ever greater amalgamations this situation was more or less unchanged until the introduction of Measured Day Work, the increasing incorporation of the stewards from the late 1970’s and final the restructuring of British capitalism under Thatcher. By that time however the steward system had spread to wide sections of the white collar union movement. But individual stewards primarily acted to represent individual workers when under threat of disciplineries rather than acting as leaders of groups of workers in pay and condition negotiations.

Another oft neglected influence on the development of the IS understanding of the unions was that of Trotsky and the Revolutionary Communist Party led by Jock Haston. It was not an accident that led the RCP to publish Trotsky’s last uncompleted writings on unions, Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, not once but three times and this when there was severe paper rationing. Although the perspective contained in this essay, best elaborated in the so called Transitional Programme, many of the points discussed in it are prescient. Combine those writings with the experience of the CPGB and their own small scale experiences, the RCP recruited heavily from the Stalinists in the early years of WW2 particularly in engineering, and it becomes obvious where Duncan Hallas and other derived their understanding of the unions from. A statement on the IS approach to Industrial Work, as understood in 1971, can be found appended below this note.

In some ways the real tragedy of IS lies in its failure to supplant the CPGB in industry before the onset of The Downturn and the developments mentioned above. There were, of course, other self inflicted wounds as with the loss of the Birmingham Engineering fraction a part of the split of 1976. As you doubtless know The Downturn was later described and it was recognised that the conditions for the development of a rank and file movement no longer existed. The new SWP was left without an industrial or union strategy but was forced to ‘steer left’ and was ever more isolated until after the Miners Strike. It had reverted to being a propaganda group but encumbered with a completely false perspective its propaganda was increasingly divorced from reality in the workplaces and unions.

After the election of Thatcher in 1979 the small SWP led rank and file groups were slowly but surely shut down by the leadership of the SWP. For the most part the members accepted this and were happy to dissolve the groups as it was recognised that all too often the various groups no longer contained anybody other than SWP members. But in a slightly earlier period some rank and file groups had been manipulated by the leadership in order to squeeze oppositionists out of them as with the Hospital Worker grouping which was dissolved as a national body in 1977/78, with local bulletins replacing the national magazine, which probably negatively impacted on the SWP intervention in the 1979 dispute. The only rank and file body which resisted being dissolved was Building Worker which became independent and was reduced to next to nothing.

With the development of the Downturn thesis and the turn to political education as a priority after 1981 it could be argued that the SWP was unfit to intervene in the Miners Strike but the reverse is true. It is true that if The Collier, the miners rank and file paper, had still existed it might have been used as a tool for intervention but that would have been at a lower political level than was the case with using Socialist Worker for the same purpose. In general the SWP responded swiftly and correctly after the strike broke out calling for mass pickets and the extension of the strike while opposing the call for a national ballot. This would not have been possible were it not for the educational work that took place before the strike. Where we went wrong was in not adapting quickly enough to the development of the Miners Support Groups after the first few weeks of the dispute if anything we were a little sectarian but we were right in trying to extend the strike as it was the only way to win.

By 1981 and the last attempt to do systematic workplace bulletins, smaller attempts have been tried but rapidly abandoned, the SWP had virtually no members in engineering or heavy industry. But it did have a concentration of members, mostly graduates, in white collar often government unions. As time passed they more and more acted as sections of the various Broad Left formations in the unions. It is noticeable that the greatest number of party activists, in particular those recruited in the 1980s, are to be found in UNISON, PCS, NUT, UCU and Unite. It is also noticeable that few, if any, leading SWP cadre in these unions were recruited as a result of union or strike support work but came almost totally from work in the colleges.

Were there opportunities to build rank and file bodies during the 1980s and 1990s? Possibly but one would have to say that such opportunities were few and far between. Indeed such episodes were extremely rare, short lived and could not be sustained. To attempt to build such bodies would simply have wasted resources and further isolated SWP militants and in general I agree with the move of comrades into the Broad Left formations with a view to collaborating with other left forces. But what should have been a tactic has become a policy that has benefited the prestige and standing of individual members, as they have ascended the union hierarchy, and the party leadership both. By a gradual process the SWP has found itself supporting, more or less most of the time, a Broad Left strategy that its theories explode and many of its members find repulsive. But key members have been happy with it and have been able to function almost totally independently of the party until they come into open conflict with the party and when that has happened there have been a series of small explosions.

Sometimes it becomes hard to understand why the SWP has fought to have its members elected to leading union positions when having won senior positions they do not use those posts to further workers’ struggles and even betray the very objectives of the movement. For example having fought for many years in the CWU Jane Loftus became President of that union in the 1990s and remains a senior member of the union to this day although she resigned from the SWP in 2009. Having resigned in 2009 Loftus was no longer functioning under the discipline of the SWP but until that point the decisions of the party were binding on her so it is germane to consider her record while still a member of the SWP.

Sadly her record is a poor one from the point of view of the self activity of the working class. In 2004 she voted for the ‘Major Change’ deal which let to job losses her argument being the need to preserve left unity. This writer would argue that left unity is all well and good but only if it benefits their struggles of the working class otherwise it is the duty of revolutionaries to tell the truth and damn the consequences. Loftus is reported at the time to have claimed that her decision was made after consultations with leading members of the SWP. Rather more oddly in the lead up to the 2006 pay deal Loftus failed to campaign against the deal although this was the position of the SWP. She did, in this instance, vote against the deal but refused to campaign against it thereby negating the purpose of a revolutionary being a leading figure in a trade union! Again her rationale was that she had to preserve left unity and could not campaign against the deal as President of the CWU. In fact she could have resigned that position or registered her opposition to the deal, kept her position (until removed) and then campaigned against the sell out. The question here is why did the ‘leading members’ of the SWP she consulted with in 2004 take the position they did and why was nothing said against her lack of action in 2006?

One particularly grotesque example of this autonomy, the Industrial Department and the union fraction leadership in question totally abdicated any responsibility for the actions of our then comrades, took place in PCS in 2006. At the time the Blair government was attempting to weaken the pension rights of new starters thereby seeking to drive a wedge between them and existing employees. The only, rather obvious, position that revolutionaries could adopt with regard to this action was total opposition although the left led executive of PCS, including its considerable Socialist Party fraction, decided to the contrary. Worse however the two embers of the SWP on that executive, Sue Bond and Martin John, also voted against rejecting this rotten deal. This vote taking place after the same two comrades had helped block strike action the previous year without a word being said publicly by the SWP to repudiate their treachery.

Thankfully there was no rerun of the SWP’s abstention in 2005 and the organisation belatedly took action and therefore responsibility for its members on the UNISON Executive. But how ridiculous was it for Socialist Worker, then edited by Chris Bambery, to be arguing against a sell out deal that its supporters on the executive were actually voting for? How lacking in backbone and leadership was the Industrial Department in not taking action against the comrades in question? How lacking in direction and again in leadership was the PCS fraction that it did not raise the alarm with the leadership of the party even if it lacked confidence to take action itself? In the end Sue Bond would offer a humiliating apology and hang on to her membership of the SWP and Martin John resigned in order not to be expelled. That Martin John had not been expelled years previously by the CC, which knew of his repeated battering of his partner, is another question best not mentioned in polite company.

Lip service is always paid to building a rank and file movement but nothing actually done, as the right circumstances do not exist, meanwhile those comrades elected to the lading bodies of these unions act autonomously with no direction or control by their branches, fractions or from the party’s Industrial Department. The result has been a series of disasters and even at the last conference it took a vote to compel the Unite fraction to oppose Len McCluskey the do nothing Broad Leftist General Secretary. Remember that the Industrial Department is currently staffed by Michael Bradley and Julie Sherry, both lacking in weight in the counsels of the leadership, and is bossed by Delta.

So does the SWP fetishize the concept of a rank and file movement? No, not at all, it pays the concept lip service but the apparat has nothing to say on it. Nor do the party’s theorists say anything about the unions, Broad Lefts, rank and file movements or much else that has to do with the workplaces. I leave aside the inconsequential efforts of Delta as they have no value. Importantly nothing is done to prepare the party cadre to develop a rank and file movement with the result that many comrades are in practice indistinguishable from the centrists and reformist lefts in the unions. The loss of leading militants from the party might well be explained by loyalties divided between revolutionary principles, which can appear tarnished by the leadership of the party, and a perceived loyalty to left unity and trade union autonomy. More objectively one cannot but note that some of the comrades lost might very well have succumbed to careerism and political opportunism. But given that the leadership of the party had failed to maintain an overview of the activities of these comrades let alone control them they cannot be completely exonerated of guilt for such losses and must be held to account for their failure to adhere to long established principles.

So what would a revolutionary politics look like in the trade unions today? It would not be a trade union politics, but the translation of revolutionary politics into the trade union arena keeping in mind that large sections of the working class are not in the trade unions and that but a very small minority of workers are active trade unionists. As Duncan Hallas pointed out in the 1970’s there is no vanguard layer of workers today the task is to create that layer and to equip it with the ideas needed to defeat the bosses. That can only be done by building a revolutionary pole in the workplaces and secondarily in the unions.

To build that revolutionary pole we would first need to have a better understanding of the class as it is at the point of production today than is currently the case. We need then a research project that will develop a picture of the class as it is in the workplaces and of those sections that constitute the reserve army of labour. Many elements of such a picture are already in our hands but no coherent picture has yet emerged that enables us to locate the key sections of the class in terms of their strategic location in the processes of production and distribution. Nor have we yet adequately mapped the nature of the recent East European migrant workers and their role in the production process indeed it is striking that many quite conservative unions are many years ahead of us in this regard.

It is also vital to abandon the illusion that a majority of our class is organised or, failing that, has at least some kind of elementary class consciousness. Most do not and a considerable part of the class lacks any kind of knowledge of unions or connection to them. It follows that even if the absurd fantasy, raised more than once in recent years by the leadership, of a General Strike could be realized that a substantial part of the class would be untouched by a struggle led by the unions. It is certainly true however that if wide layers of the class were in a position that a call for a General Strike had purchase on reality that even those layers of the class previously untouched by union organisation would be breaking down the doors of even the most sclerotic of trade unions.

The Rank and File tactic is at best inadequate in today’s conditions. It is far beyond the capacity of revolutionaries today given the low levels of consciousness and lack of organisation that characterise most of the class today. We need then to understand how we can work towards the development and foundation of a rank and file movement linked to a revolutionary organisation far larger than the SWP. This cannot but mean making the best of opportunities afforded by work carried out in broad left formations and by alliances with left union leaders, good examples would be Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka, without ever subjecting our project to their reformist ideology with its self defeating ordinances. It also means ensuring that all disputes are, as best is practical and possible, driven from below ideally by elected and recallable strike committees.

To reach even this modest place we must abandon verbally leftist demands for General Strikes that simply cause the revolutionary cause to look quixotic and considered objectively serve to alibi the lack of concrete action by the left reformist leaders. In the event of an even partial victory by the undeclared CC Faction and the full return to office of Delta we can expect to hear more not less of such verbal leftism. A revolutionary policy in the unions demands systematic work that is not disrupted by arbitrary and personal links. A policy that is motivated by an understanding of transitional politics the method of the United Front and rejects the opportunist search for influence that is not rooted in the workplaces.

Finally this author notes that this approach to revolutionary work in the workplaces and unions demands a strong interventionist leadership. A leadership, at every level from the local branch to national fractions, that takes responsibility for its actions and the resulting consequences. This requires an Industrial Department that has the authority and will to work with the elected leaderships of the various fractions and can provide them with advice and support. An Industrial Department then that would not allow individual comrades to function without guidance or leadership from the party and subverts our revolutionary politics for the sake of transient influence with left bureaucrats.


 International Socialists

 Policy Statement on Industrial Work


 This policy statement was adopted at a conference of IS members active in industrial and trade union work, and endorsed by the National Committee. It gives the general guidelines for revolutionary socialists on the question. Of course a fight for ‘democracy’ in the abstract will not succeed. The democratic demands have to be linked, in every-case, with specific policy demands on wages, conditions, safety and so on. The formulation of realistic revolutionary policies in the various industries and unions is the task IS industrial militants are now tackling. The present statement is a common element in all of them.

Conference recognises that, under modern conditions, the trade union bureaucracy is a special social group which is used in the maintenance of capitalist class rule.

While the bureaucracy reflects in varying degrees at different times, the pressure of the membership, it also serves as an instrument through which the employers and the State try to discipline and control workers, to limit and often sabotage disputes, to check solidarity actions and to prevent the union of political and industrial struggles. This dual role does not depend mainly on the political outlook of the individual official, though this is of some importance. It depends on the actual position of the bureaucracy in capitalist society. The officials are a relatively privileged group organised in hierarchies enjoying better pay, conditions and, usually, job security than the rank and file militant. They are under very strong pressure to conform to the model of the ‘responsible’ trade union officer, responsible not to the membership, but to the standards of the employer and the state machine.

Under pressure from both the workers and the employers, the bureaucracies try all the time to become independent, to change their position from that of servant of the membership to that of master. To the extent that they succeed in this the unions become mainly organisations for controlling the workers and only secondarily organisations of the workers.

Even where this has already happened to a large extent, Conference rejects the idea that the unions can be bypassed or ignored or that breakaway unions should be promoted. The experience of the last sixty years shows that these views lead to a dangerous isolation of militants from the mass of their fellow workers and so to a strengthening of the bureaucracy. The struggle against the bureaucracy requires the needs a combination of rank and file activity and work in the union machine. Unofficial and official organisations must both be used.

In the longer term the struggle against the bureaucracy requires the development of a national rank and file organisation and a program of action which combines immediate and long term demands. Central to this program is the question of control by the membership.

Therefore Conference recognises the urgent need to campaign for rank and file control of the trade unions. We recognise the that no democratic constitution alone guarantees active democracy, that being dependent on the degree of participation by the membership at large. Where rank and file members draw up programmes of demands specific to their individual union, these should (a) be based on the principles outlined below and (b) be related to the immediate experience of trade unionists in struggle and not mere blueprints abstracted from the present level of class activity.


1. All officials should be elected and subject to constant recall.
2. All full-time officials should be paid the average wage in their industry.
3. Union policy-making bodies should be comprised of elected lay officials only.
4. Election addresses to be circulated unaltered for candidates for all elected positions in the union.
5. Any educational qualifications for union office should be abolished.
6. No member to be disqualified from holding office on political grounds.
7. Full minutes and voting records of policy making bodies should be circularised.
8. No political censorship of union journal.

National Conference

1. National delegate conferences should be held annually.
2. Standing Orders committees should annually comprise of elected lay-officials.
3. No branch block voting.
Appeals Court
1. Appeals Committees should be comprised of elected lay-officials.


1. While in principle we support industrial unions and any amalgamations contributing to that end, the priority remains for maximum rank and file unity, for joint shop stewards committees, factory and combine wide.


1. No secret negotiations.
2. Every stage of negotiations should be subject to rank and file ratifications at mass meetings.
3. Mass meetings should never be presented with package deals unless each part of the deal has been voted on separately beforehand.


1. All strikes in support of trade union principle, conditions or wages be made official.
2. Dispute benefit to be raised by levy of entire membership when necessary.

Closed Shop

1. Support of 100 per cent trade unionism and the right of trade unionists to enforce closed shops.
2. Opposition to check-off system.
3. Opposition to employer policed ‘agency shops’.
4. Support of the right for trade unionists to discipline fellow workers who flout democratic decisions.
5. Access to job waiting lists by shop stewards committees. Waiting lists to be on the basis, first applied first employed.

Shop Stewards

1. Opposition to any ‘managerial policing’ by shop stewards. No participation on management committees intended to keep shop stewards off the shop floor for long periods.
2. Shop stewards to hold regular report back meetings: insistence on allocated time for such meetings; especially where there is shift working.

Individual Rights

1. Right of members to criticise union policy
2. Right of members to meet unofficially and visit other branches.
3. Right of members to communicate with the press.
4. Right of members to write, circularise and/or sell political literature.
5. Right of appeal direct to Appeals court.
6. Right of all members, irrespective of sex or race, to pay equal contributions, to receive equal benefits and to have equal access to all union delegacies and offices.

International Socialism Number 48 June/July 1971


Filed under Left Politics

Letter from Pat S to the National Committee


Since conference I have been contacted by a number of longstanding comrades to find out where I stand on things. Due to my position as chair of the DC I have tried to be very circumspect in how I reply, and obviously have not discussed the ins and outs of the case (and in fairness none of these comrades have asked me to).

Like everybody else I am sure I have observed the goings on since conference with feelings of alarm and dismay, and feel I cannot simply say nothing when comrades seek my view. In light of that I feel I should make clear my views to you/the CC at the present time.

My starting point is that I want the essentials of our politics to be maintained whilst loss of membership is minimised. I realise getting that balance right is going to prove very tricky to say the least. Anyway, here goes.

After the vote at conference on the DC report I felt there needed to be a real awareness on the part of our leadership of how narrow the vote was and what measures had to be taken to reflect the genuine concerns expressed by the minority.

I felt that to do that three steps needed to be taken.

The first was to acknowledge that many people were uneasy, to say the least, about the processes of the DC and to either set up a commission to review them or at the very least commit the CC/DC to look at the whole process and see if there were things we would like to change. (With that wonderful gift, the benefit of hindsight, there are a number of changes I would want to examine, especially for cases of this sort). I drew up most of the processes and have to admit that looking back some of them were far from ideal for this case.

I also felt (though you won’t agree, and it is too late to change it now) that in light of the closeness of the vote the CC should have accepted Joseph C’s unity slate. I think it would have sent out a message that we were serious about healing wounds, and if it turned out that the ‘nuanced’ (to quote Alex) political differences were rather more than that, we could have had those debates in the open between now and next conference. Instead the CC seemed to be declaring war on the minority and, in my opinion, in the process were allowing people with very substantial differences to leap into the vanguard of those comrades who were troubled, unhappy and unsure.

Finally, I am truly puzzled that Comrade [Delta] is still playing a prominent role. Surely after the closeness of the vote there had to be a recognition that very many members were unsure of his behaviour and that (for a period of time at the very least) it would have been wise and appropriate to ask him to step away from all public activities and engagements. To not do so is to tell the large body of comrades who are unhappy or unsure, ‘we don’t care about your concerns, like it or lump it’ (defend or resign is what I believe some comrades were initially told). If for no other reason than putting the interests of the party first it seems to me Comrade [Delta] has to be asked/told to step away.

Looking to the immediate future I have real concerns about the case about to be brought against the ‘Facebook Four’. This is not to do with their guilt or otherwise, rather that things have moved on so rapidly that their offenses seem almost trivial compared to the bloggers and their very public allies.
I believe the CC have very wisely not rushed in to disciplining Richard S/China M etc, but if I were one of the four I would certainly question the fairness of being disciplined when those comrades aren’t. My own view was that it was always a tactical error to move against them before conference, and perhaps if we hadn’t we would have some wriggle room now. My real fear is their case will be the next big cause celebre to set the bloggers off once more and probably trigger resignations. I think a lot of comrades would like some respite from the filth that is out there (here I’m talking about non-party bloggers), but these expulsions will only give that filth fresh impetus. If there is any way for the CC to step back from this I feel they should take it. For the same reasons I am against taking disciplinary action against RS.

What about the longer term? Here I feel that true and calm leadership may prevent us losing a huge chunk of our young recruits, and with them demoralised older members.

Any influx of young members presents challenges that we have to be able to respond to. I was on a student committee that openly rebelled about the punk paper, carried out a policy of non co-operation with Paul H (his ‘grow up’ contribution brought this memory flooding back) when the CC took Chris H off student work because of his stand on the paper. (As an aside It is worth noting that Chris, and indeed for a period Steve J, remained on the CC long after their differences became very far from ‘nuanced’).

We fought the CC over our attitude to the Afghan rebels, and were all over the place on the downturn, Women’s Voice, Flame etc. The party combined vigorous debate with great patience, and most of us ended up on the right side in these debates and two or three ended up on the CC with others being organisers and longstanding members.

We had a healthy scepticism and distrust of all authority, which was partly why we became revolutionaries in the first place, and we carried some of that bloody-mindedness into the party and directed it at our own leaders.

I think any large scale recruitment of young members will find both a distrust of leadership, and an impatience for it. Such attitudes present challenges, such as the leadership having to earn the trust of young members because they weren’t there for many of the battles and lessons that has earned that leadership the trust and respect of many older members.

Indeed, such scepticism and impatience are necessary elements if these members are to become the next generation of leaders. The alternative is to ‘leave the young people of 29 to the liberals’.
What, though, of the political differences; democratic centralism, feminism etc?

Never has the need for patient explanation been greater. Partly some of the difficulties have been of our own making. Identifying democratic centralism with one type of slate system, or one very messy Disputes Committee case is a grand folly of miseducation.

Nevertheless there is a real ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ tendency among some of the bloggers and some who put their views in the IB. I believe the genuine core of democratic centralism has to be defended, but I believe it has taken a hammering (particularly over the case). So let’s use the pages of the journal to have the argument over the next 12/24 months. Of course there is the pre conference period, but the downturn and Women’s Voice debates lasted at least two years, they were argued out in the ISJ, at Skegness etc, not just in the formal pre conference period. We have to learn that lesson and repeat it.

Similarly over feminism. This year’s women’s discussion was largely uncontroversial, but last year’s felt like a dialogue of the deaf. The young women cadre were attacked by the older women cadre who merely seemed to brush off their ‘Women’s Voice’ debate notes and repeat them in a condescending and haranguing style.

This will not do. If we are to patiently explain, then we must also listen. The new feminism emerged from the wasteland of ‘post feminism’. It emerged against the background of new laddism, an exploding internet porn industry, and dubious models of girl power and raunch culture. This background made many radical women refuse to use the term feminism in case they were seen to be man-hating humourless oddballs. This was not a progressive or left wing rejection of feminism.
Therefore to have a new generation of women calling themselves feminist is a good thing. In articulating itself it frequently does not look or sound like the feminism of the past, and can seem on the face of it to be completely compatible with revolutionary socialism.

Our essential difference with it, however, is that it cannot achieve genuine women’s liberation. That has to be a serious debate, taking on the feminism of today, not that of yesterday (whatever the core similarities between them). It needs to be done in a comradely and serious way, again using the pages of the journal to invite all-comers as we seek to clarify.

We certainly have to get away from treating it as a nasty problem to be eradicated.

Finally, I think the leadership needs to ‘take a chill pill’ over social media. It seems alien to me, but perfectly normal to my nieces and nephews, that the pages of Facebook are used to share almost everything bar the darkest secrets. To them it’s as natural as it was for us to meet a bunch of people in a pub (or at a dinner party for the more sophisticated) and give vent to all our frustrations and disenchantments.

At conference an older comrade said to me we’ve got to ‘stop all this Facebook stuff’ I told him that if the ruling class had understood the internet before it was too late they would have seized and controlled it. If they couldn’t we sure as hell can’t and neither should we want to.

I feel this attitude was typified by the majority of the CC’s response to the internet debate last year. I remarked to somebody that the leadership sounded like aging CP’ers in the late 50s and early 60s denouncing Rock and Roll as an evil expression of American capitalism.

The times they have a changed. If we want young comrades to take us seriously, we need to seriously listen to them about this stuff, instead of panicking about what a seriously run website might do to the review, the journal or even the paper; we have to instead ask is it serious not to have a well run website that is absolutely central to our political/organisational priorities.

My point is that in all the ‘patient explaining’, and ‘politically educating’ we should keep at the forefront of our minds that famous maxim of Lenin’s: ‘Who teaches the teachers?’.

As I say, I have remained as quiet as possible throughout this whole process (though I know some would have liked me to be one speech quieter than I was), but I think we are now fighting for the party’s life and to say nothing is no longer possible.

Pat S


Filed under Left Politics

The SWP crisis: some reflections

Hear this, ye old men, and give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land. Hath this been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers?

Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.

That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpillar eaten.

Awake, ye drunkards, and weep; and howl, all ye drinkers of wine, because of the new wine; for it is cut off from your mouth.

Joel 1:2-5

The current crisis in the SWP, it is fair to say, has been seriously traumatic for many comrades within and without the party – indeed, anyone in the party who can just blithely carry on in these circumstances seriously needs to go away and examine his conscience, assuming he has one. There have already been thousands of words written on this, and good discussions initiated here and here – what follows are meant only as some fairly unsystematic reflections on the present situation and on how we got here. Needless to say, not all the bases will be covered by any means, but if a contribution can be made to the discussion, well and good.

More particularly, the author aims with this initial post to flag up certain aspects of party organisation and culture that are making a bad situation worse. The starting point is, quite simply, that judged by its own criteria, the SWP is not fit for purpose, and quite possibly it hasn’t been for many years. Broader questions such as whether the party’s current perspectives make sense (they don’t), whether the broader British left is fit for purpose (it isn’t) or what forms a revitalised left might take (extremely speculative at this point) will have to wait for later.

Fair warning: this post is a little on the prolix side. I advise you to read this wonderful post from Madam Miaow for a punchier take on events.

A unique situation, or perhaps not

First, let us begin with some background.

For many years, the main Trotskyist current in Britain was that led by Gerry Healy. And the Healy organisation – latterly known as the Workers Revolutionary Party – was actually rather impressive in its heyday. To be sure, it did acquire a very bad reputation over the years for having a thuggish and violent internal regime, sometimes spilling over into physical attacks on members of other groups; for its habit of slandering anyone who disagreed with it as an agent of the CIA, the KGB, or both; and for an impenetrable “philosophy” whose main function was to justify whatever Gerry wanted to do at any particular moment.

Nonetheless, it was still a shock when Healy was exposed in 1985 as a hardened sexual predator who had raped or sexually abused literally dozens of female members of his organisation. This was not just the moral failing of one bad man, though Healy was undoubtedly a very bad man; it was the moral bankruptcy of the entire organisation that he had ruled with a rod of iron for decades. The bankruptcy of those WRP leaders who had covered up for him for so long; also, painful though it is to admit it, of the many WRP cadres, experienced working-class militants with a solid grounding in Marxist theory, who stood by as Healy raped first their wives, then their daughters, and could not bring themselves to see what the Great Leader was doing.

It is true that the WRP leadership split down the middle, and eventually removed Healy and his most slavish acolytes. But it is hard to find anyone who emerges from that story with much credit. Certainly not those leaders (and fellow travellers including at least one prominent Labour politician) who insisted for years that Healy was completely innocent and had been fitted up by MI5. On the other hand, the anti-Healy faction led by Cliff Slaughter initiated a wide-ranging discussion of what had gone wrong, open to anyone who agreed that Cliff Slaughter was a nice man who, during his very close thirty-year association with Healy, had had no idea what Gerry was doing. The only conclusion to be drawn was that the whole edifice of the WRP was irredeemably rotten; the only hope that some decent people might reflect on the experience and learn.

Let us now shift continents and organisations. In 1988 one Mark Curtis was arrested in Des Moines, Iowa, on a charge of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl, and subsequently convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. (He was released after eight years.) Curtis was a member of the US Socialist Workers Party, no relation to the British organisation of the same name. At that time the US SWP, under the guidance of its maximum leader Jack Barnes, had purged a series of oppositions, including virtually all the surviving founders of the party, and the organisation had become an inward-looking sect, developing many of the features of a cult.

How did the Barnes organisation react to the Curtis arrest? Firstly, by claiming a huge state conspiracy to frame up Curtis on account of his political beliefs. This was not very likely from a glance at the facts of the case, such as the implausibility of such a political frame-up relying on the testimony of a frightened 15-year-old Black girl and her 11-year-old brother. In fact the evidence against Curtis, who was literally caught with his trousers down, was overwhelming. Still, it did allow the Barnesites to launch a large-scale defence campaign, publishing a book about Curtis’ martyrdom, getting various union figures and leftist celebrities to sign Free Mark Curtis petitions, and not least, raising money for the cause. It seems, incidentally, that the Barnesite leadership themselves didn’t have much faith in Curtis’ story, as his party membership was quietly terminated at some point after his release from prison.

All right, you will say, but these cases were a long time ago, and relate to notoriously sectarian organisations. Do they really have any wider implications?

I would argue that they do – at least, a reaction that says “Those guys were nutjobs, we have nothing to learn from their mistakes” is not very responsible. The fact is that character is not coterminous with politics – not everyone on the left is a nice person, far from it, quite a few are utter scumbags. These things can happen anywhere; the crucial thing is how you respond to them, and it’s not unknown for organisations or movements to close ranks and cover up. Indeed, if you think this only happens in the rarefied world of Leninist politics, this horrific story from Occupy Glasgow should open a few eyes, not least the victim-blaming attitude of Occupy activists, and indeed the accusations that even mentioning what had happened was a symptom, not of common human decency, but of hostility to Occupy, and therefore illegitimate.

It can happen here; it can hit you right where you live; what matters is how you respond.

The Delta case

The SWP Disputes Committee in session

The SWP Disputes Committee in session

What follows in this section, on the case of “Comrade Delta” and the woman known as “W”, will be fairly sketchy on the details of the case – much of which we simply do not know for certain – and will focus more on the process involved. The reasoning for this will, I hope, become clear, and is not at all intended to minimise the seriousness of a rape charge (which in any case we are unable to decide here), but rather to point out the institutional failure. If you haven’t read them already, I thoroughly recommend this thoughtful and humane piece from Laurie Penny; this very fine piece, and this follow-up from Richard Seymour; and the transcript of the closed session at conference.[1]

Firstly, even in an ideal situation – which this clearly was not – there is an obvious question of whether the party’s Disputes Committee was competent to hear a complaint of something as serious as rape. Even the state’s criminal justice system, with all its resources and with all the changes to the legal framework in recent decades[2], finds it difficult to secure convictions, not least because on a purely evidential basis, rape is a difficult crime to prove beyond reasonable doubt. Would an SWP disciplinary panel have the necessary expertise to handle such a case? What forensic resources would it have? If it ruled that an allegation of rape was proven, what penalties could it apply beyond expulsion from the SWP? So even if one accepts an argument that an internal disciplinary panel was superior to a court of law on ideological grounds, because DC members had a fine grasp of political issues surrounding women’s oppression (I incidentally don’t accept this argument, and would hope that nobody but the most brainwashed cultist would do so), there are compelling practical arguments that the party was simply not competent to investigate the issue.

There is also the important factor that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. There are a whole range of social institutions, from the Boy Scouts to the Catholic Church to the BBC, which have learned the hard way that an institution cannot credibly investigate itself, especially where sexual offences are concerned. The problem is exacerbated when the Disputes Committee which is investigating a Central Committee member contains two members of the CC on secondment, and when all five of the remaining members are long-term friends and collaborators of the CC member. Even if we allow for the personal integrity of the DC members, and trust that they approached their task seriously, it will inevitably look like a whitewash. Moreover, and I don’t think the leadership have considered this – it isn’t fair on the accused either, because outside observers will naturally assume that he was let off as a result of the leadership closing ranks and organising a cover-up. Unless a credible process is gone through, he will always have that stain on his character.

For a thoroughly sensible view on how this could have been handled, I recommend this post by Linda Rodgers. However, this point is worth noting:

I have also faced the argument that the DC has investigated 9 rapes in the past (I’m not clear on how recently these ‘investigations’ were conducted).  I believe this argument is put forward to reassure comrades of the competency of the DC.  I don’t find it reassuring in the slightest; in fact I find it terrifying.

Quite so, because of course this case wasn’t handled in an ideal way. A case that would have been almost impossible to handle well was in fact handled appallingly badly. Leaving aside the issue of whether DC members asked inappropriate questions, it is clear that the CC had been seriously misrepresenting the situation to the members as far back as the latter half of 2010, when rumours first began to circulate about Delta; and that this included the grotesque spectacle of the “special session” at the 2011 conference, when a highly evasive speech from Delta was met with an orchestrated standing ovation, stamping and chanting. Although the rumour mills had been working overtime, few comrades attending this year’s conference would have been aware of the precise nature of the allegations until the closed session started. The close vote on the DC report, under conditions of very heavy whipping, is a small indication of the sheer anger felt by many delegates at how their leaders had blatantly lied to them about this extremely serious matter.

In fact, this is tacitly acknowledged by the CC whose statements, whether in Party Notes or in Alex Callinicos’ libertyvalanced Socialist Review article, barely go through the motions of defending how the Delta case was handled. Instead, they beat their chests about “attacks on the party”, about the need to get off the internet and into the “real world”, and above all, for the comrades to respect the CC’s authority. This is not very impressive.

So, how did we come to this pass?

The Leninist party: image and reality

The SWP fondly believes it is building a modern British analogue to the Bolshevik Party. So do many, many smaller far left groups. This is, let us say, problematic. I direct readers to this elegant and sensible contribution from Tom Walker, and a typically erudite piece from Paul LeBlanc.

Firstly, there’s the question of whether the left’s image of “Leninism” bears any substantial resemblance to what was actually advocated and practiced by Lenin, and in my view, the sterling work of Lars Lih has left our latter-day Bolsheviks without a leg to stand on. The conceit that we could mine a bad translation of What Is To Be Done? for a ready-made menu of how to build a revolutionary party, perhaps augmented by Cliff’s four-volume Lenin biography, has to be discarded.

There’s a secondary issue of whether, even if we can retrieve an accurate picture of Lenin’s concept of the party, it’s worth trying to revive that beyond picking up a few pointers on method. I would argue not; in today’s context, the history of Bolshevism is richer in lessons on what not to do. To put things in perspective, if Laurie Penny draws on the politics of the 1960s New Left, then Laurie is at an advantage in that she’s only 40 years out of date, while the SWP is 100 years out of date. The radical left really needs to break from the cargo-cult mentality of trying to re-enact things that our ancestors did in the hope that the result will be different this time.[3]

Nonetheless, there are peculiar features of the SWP that are worth drawing out, not least because SWP discourse has a long history of not wanting to discuss internal party structures. This (at least in the self-serving reasoning of the CC) is because the structure of the party is a distraction from what’s going on in the real world. One notices the same argument being dragged out again in the current crisis, which is really dumb when the SWP’s disciplinary processes are the reason why real-world allies are now shunning the party. It is important to reaffirm that the regime question is a political question.

Trying to anatomise the SWP’s mode of organisation is a seriously difficult task. It’s not like, for instance, the Socialist Party’s replication of the structures of the official labour movement, complete with its plethora of subcommittees and working groups, and fairly well-defined pecking order based on length of service. By contrast, the SWP’s informal, semi-anarchist style almost defeats analysis. You really need to be a member for quite a few years to get a sense of how it actually functions. This informality, of course, suits the leadership right down to the ground, because it’s much harder to hold anyone to account. And, if public choice theory has taught us anything, it’s that a non-profit bureaucracy can be every bit as self-serving as a corporation.

One of the most common misconceptions about the SWP is that the leadership is obsessed with imposing ideological conformity. No, it really isn’t – though holding a dissenting view may cause you to be mistrusted, as long as you don’t challenge the CC’s authority you can survive in the party for many years. The key point – and this is slightly problematic for a revolutionary party supposed to be made up of society’s rebels – is that the SWP has developed a very efficient system for rendering the members docile. I would say this was deliberate, but if Cliff had designed things this way they certainly wouldn’t have worked as effectively as they do.

The apparat

Formally, annual conference is the supreme authority. In practice, there’s no way to challenge the CC outside of conference, which makes it very difficult for conference to hold the CC to account. This is reinforced by the ban on factional activity except in the prescribed pre-conference discussion period (the beginning of which is often marked by expulsions for factionalism, pour encourager les autres) and the use of the slate system to elect the CC, which effectively means the outgoing CC re-appoints itself (with one or two personnel changes for reasons that are not made clear to delegates). So the leadership does tend to become a self-perpetuating clique.

Now, if the SWP has a grandiose self-image – remember that this is an organisation of a few thousand which aspires to overthrow every government in the world – this is even more concentrated at the top, in the CC and the surrounding layers of senior cadre (we might borrow from Orwell and call them the Inner Party). This is where you find the talk about “interventionist leadership”, which views the party leaders as chess players moving their pawns around. Cliff, for all his faults, managed to temper this attitude with self-deprecating humour; his successors less so. One recalls Alex Callinicos’ great-grandfather Lord Acton, who had a good saying about power.

And then there’s the full-time apparat built up over the organisation’s 60-year existence. As Kevin Crane puts it:

The SWP centre is a truly bizarre institution that many SWP members, particularly those outside London, quite simply know nothing about. The SWP’s 2,500 or so subs-paying members pay for the payroll of dozens of people, mostly to do work which other organisations (including most of the SWP sister groups in other nation-states) devolve to volunteer activity by regular members. The number of journalists employed on its weekly paper is something like double the full-time staff of a typical local weekly with a higher circulation. Bureaucracy, sadly, is self-justifying: there are fifteen people, more or less, paid to produce and distribute the party’s publications, and this tends to outclass any debate about the role of those publications in political activity.

There is team of people building and promoting meetings on behalf of the membership and there are even people solely gathering money. These teams exist and, naturally, have to justify their existence, so they are continually forced to act as substitutionists for activity that, in a party of leaders, one should really hope would be done by lay members. And, as branches have become less and less central to SWP members’ lives over the years and played less and less of an organisational role, it has become progressively ever more detached and bastardised from its roots. It has become the Vatican City-State of the party and is convinced, like all bureaucracies, that it must expand to meet its expanding needs.  It also, like all bureaucracies, has the organisation, time and resources to put its views across and to stifle points of view that do not suit its needs.

That’s the centre. Add on to that the full-time district organisers, appointed by the CC and fiercely loyal to it, who exercise almost feudal dominance in their areas, and usually don’t contribute much that couldn’t be done by lay members. Your district might luck out and get a really good one, but then we come to the question of who organises the organisers, for he is the man who sets the tone. For many years that was Chris Bambery, whose style of man-management could be fairly described as draconian; he was later replaced by Martin Smith, who was arguably worse. The system of appointment positively encourages brown-nosing of those above and casual brutality towards those below. And not merely among party workers; young recruits who aspire to be party workers are acculturated into these attitudes.

This is not, incidentally, unique to the British SWP – the US SWP, which parallels it in some ways, developed an enormous bureaucracy on the back of a commercial income beyond the members’ subs, and which in turn provided the material base for Jack Barnes and his camarilla to take it over and turn the party into its opposite.

Add in other elements of party life, such as the CC’s operation of cabinet responsibility, where they all show a united face to the membership on every issue (for instance, they were unanimous in support of John Rees, until they dumped him) and an interpretation of democratic centralism that expects members, as a matter of discipline, to pretend to agree with positions they don’t believe in… in this context, you can see why rational ignorance begins to look like a viable strategy for the rank-and-filer.

This may be just about forgivable if the party was really good at what it did – an “instrument of steel” like the old Communist Party. But it isn’t.

Open all hours

There has already been plenty of commentary about the political effects of this concept of “interventionist leadership”. But at this point I’d like to look at some practicalities – because if we apply the standards of modern corporate governance rather than a blueprint derived from Cliff’s Lenin biography… well, let’s just say a management consultant would take one look at the SWP and tear his hair out.

  • The Central Committee is supposed to be a strategic political leadership; however, it also functions as a cabinet whose members all have portfolios. Now, there are some people who might be good at providing strategic leadership and others who are good managers; there are very few who excel at both; and we can probably name some who are good at neither. The CC, as an institution, falls between stools. Virtually all of its members (with the notable exception of Prof Callinicos) are selected from the ranks of party full-timers. There is too much dead wood on the CC, and it would do no harm to have the equivalent of non-executive directors who could hold the full-timers to account.[4]
  • Term limits might also be an idea, so as to reduce the phenomenon of apparatchiks who have worked for the party for decades and whose primary loyalty is to the structure and their place within it.
  • As noted, district organisers are appointed by and accountable to the CC. If it turns out that a district organiser is a flaming asshole, members in the district have no way to remove him except by appealing to the same party leaders who appointed him in the first place.
  • There are no audited accounts, and the party’s finances are shrouded in mystery. Certainly, no accounts are presented to conference, and one doubts if even the CC has a complete picture. This has not been helped by a long series of party treasurers who were unable to add up.
  • Outside of the CC, meetings are almost never minuted. Mike Gonzalez’s seeming bemusement during the Sheridan affair that a party might actually want to have minutes of a serious decision was not entirely disingenuous – Mike’s own tradition just doesn’t act that way.
  • Party jobs are not advertised among members, often have only the vaguest of job descriptions, and are filled to a large extent by cronyism and nepotism. Similarly, it’s quite difficult to get to write for the party press without having a mate in the apparat, and writing and speaking assignments are often handed out as perks, rather than going to comrades with relevant expertise.
  • Party bodies, such as the recent Disputes Committee, do not have worked-out terms of reference; equally, there is no set grievance procedure. One simply raises a concern with a leading cadre and hopes for the best.
  • The CC continues to be able to second members to the DC, which at the very least calls into question the DC’s impartiality – not simply when it is investigating a CC member, but more generally, the bulk of its work consists of hearing appeals against CC disciplinary decisions. Again, confidence is not helped by the usually brief and cryptic nature of DC reports to conference.
  • Expulsions and suspensions continue to be carried out arbitrarily, without proper hearings or evidence. The recent innovation of expelling members by email is a particular abomination.
  • As has been pointed out at wearying length, the membership rolls are absurdly inflated by including everyone who has signed a form in the last two years, and it is virtually impossible to get the centre to remove names from the list. Re-registration drives become competitions between organisers to see who can get the most names on their list, regardless of whether this bears any relationship to the subs-paying membership. Indeed, the fact that the ISO (US)  requires branches to regularly revise their lists and strip out people who aren’t active was used as proof of the ISO’s “conservatism”.

This is just a brief overview – no trade union would work like that in this day and age, and any capitalist enterprise that tried would soon go out of business. There are plenty of other points that could be made along these lines.


Yet the formal structures don’t even tell half of the story. Organisations develop their own cultures, especially those that deviate considerably from the mainstream of society.

The SWP leadership manages the interesting feat of being both extremely secretive and extremely leaky. Ideally, the CC would like to have a monopoly of information in the party; however, this isn’t humanly possible, especially in the age of the internet. This means that the party has a very well-developed gossip network. The Inner Party doesn’t like this, but is prepared to take advantage of it, for purposes such as feeding privileged information to young comrades on the informal fast track, or for slandering those have fallen from grace. This attitude actually helps make the atmosphere in branches much more poisonous.

Fortunately, this is one aspect of SWP life that has rapidly been rendered obsolete by the technological revolution. The very fact that you are reading this on the interwebs, where critics of the CC in Cliff’s day would have to resort to badly duplicated samizdats, is indicative of the fact that our hyperconnected digital culture is subversive of existing hierarchies, particularly those who are not web savvy. A leadership from the age of hot metal does not grasp that for younger comrades, Facebook is a perfectly natural method of communication; nor does it grasp that the party’s dirty little secrets cannot stay secret forever. Charlie Kimber may not recognise the internet, but the internet recognises him.

In the absence of many formal structures below the CC level, the party operates according to informal in-groups and out-groups, the boundaries of which are constantly shifting. Combine that with a sub-Machiavellian ethical sense – call it Good Cause Corruption if you like – and the disciplinary regime starts to come into focus. Essentially, what you can get away with depends on whether you’re in or out – though even if you’re in, your transgressions will be stored away for use against you should you later be on the outs. And this, note, in an organisation where bullying is both endemic and informally encouraged.

It’s also worth pointing out that formal expulsions are relatively rare. What normally happens is that if you put a foot wrong, or even if your organiser just takes a dislike to you, you will be ostracised and slandered to the point where it becomes impossible to remain a member. Most people faced with this sort of behaviour simply drop out – and the shunning of ex-members provides a warning to those still inside.

Usually, of course, it doesn’t come to that. Much more common is the famed Coffee Ritual, where you are invited to sit down with a leading member who will point out your ideological deviations and infractions of discipline at excruciating length, and invite you to make a self-criticism. Please note that disagreeing with the leading comrade is not welcome, nor is adopting a sarcastic tone of voice.

Does this sound a little cultish? Well, no more so than many other smallish social groups – on the British left, there is one group whose guru uses his position to inflict his Vogon poetry on the members. Cultural politics in the SWP generally takes the form of the Marxism festival being overloaded with “What’s so great about…?” meetings on the enthusiasms of the leadership (usually Jane Austen and Bruce Springsteen). But we also note, in this thought-provoking article, that:

A number of CC members are big fans of jazz music.  Under their leadership over the past few years, the party has organised a number of (mostly loss-making) jazz gigs as fundraising events.  Regardless of their own musical tastes, comrades were told they were disloyal if they didn’t purchase tickets.  This elevates the cultural tastes of the official leadership to a point of political principle; and clearly is not in any way a healthy state of affairs.

Let’s not beat about the bush here: we are talking about the friendship between Gilad Atzmon and Martin Smith, which has not only cost the party credibility, but actually cost the party money. Yet in some corners of the party defending Atzmon, despite his profoundly dodgy politics, has become a sign of political virility, for no better reason than that he is a mate of Martin’s. Sheesh.

The sexism thing

So, if we may return to where we started, what can we say about the organisation’s sexual politics?

Firstly, I am not convinced by arguments that, if only the SWP had adopted patriarchy theory or some particular brand of feminist politics, this could have been avoided. That is simply an idealist analysis. Perhaps (I’ll even say probably) the SWP’s understanding of sexual politics is inadequate, but there are left groups who stand closer to classic feminist positions and still haven’t avoided analogous situations.

That said, CC loyalists’ current use of “feminist” as a swear word belies a more complex history than you would think, and certainly a more interesting history than what young members will have absorbed from Judith Orr’s small book Sexism and the System. Back in the 1970s, the party was quite happy to identify as feminist, and for a long time had an autonomous women’s organisation. This position was reversed in the early 1980s for internal party reasons too boring to relate here, culminating in Cliff’s 1984 book Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, which explicitly repudiated the F-word as a self-description. In turn, this was superseded by Lindsey German’s Sex, Class and Socialism (1989), which finessed the Cliff line without openly criticising it. More recently, there have been interesting signs of fresh thinking from within the SWP’s tradition. So feminism, as such, is an area that is open for discussion.[5]

But the theory, I would argue, is not the important thing. Theoretically, this is an area where the party travels light, and can be held up as an example of the SWP’s ingrained tendency to be the most vocal advocates of whatever’s popular with students this year. In fact, just as we have ethical instrumentalism, we here have political instrumentalism, where the yardstick is the utility of a particular campaign. See for instance the party’s long-running fixation on “raunch culture”, which began with Lindsey German watching an episode of Men Behaving Badly and not being amused; helped explain to comrades which comedians they should go to see; was pressed into service to ally with conservative Muslims against lap-dancing clubs; and has been disinterred at regular intervals to support a most remarkable variety of positions.

On the other hand, this does not fit very well with the blatant misogyny displayed by some party members in Scotland during the Sheridan affair, where one could find well-educated middle-class cadres describing socialist women as “bitches” or “cunts” for the sin of criticising the Tangerine Man. So we find expediency creeps in again.

The point is that the instrumentalism, together with the disciplinary set-up based on in-groups and out-groups, provides a method for seeing how an internal culture could develop, at least in certain corners of the party, which is occasionally somewhat at odds with the party’s formal stance on women’s liberation. In particular, since standards of behaviour are a moveable feast depending on how well connected you are in the party…

It is not true that the SWP, in general, has the atmosphere of a swingers’ club. In fact, at branch level it can often be ferociously puritanical. If you belong to the out-group, a mildly ribald sense of humour can see you hauled over the coals for “sexism”. Rather nastier is the habit of expelling political dissidents for sexual harassment, usually on very little evidence but having the useful effect of smearing the dissident’s name. At one time, this was a tactic deliberately taught to organisers, which seems blackly humorous in the current situation.

One would expect the Inner Party to be held to even more stringent standards, but actually it works the other way around. This is not to say that all, or even most, senior cadres are mad shaggers. But some are, and they tend to be fairly well connected. There might only be one compulsive skirt-chaser in a sizeable district; however, it is enough of a phenomenon to be noticeable, and if the centre kept proper membership rolls, it might be interesting to look at which branches have a particularly high turnover of female recruits.

And this helps put the famous “fuck circuit” into context. In an organisation with such a pronounced hierarchy, where patronage rules, bearing in mind the power imbalance between a young female recruit and a middle-aged male party leader with all the mystique surrounding the leadership… Well, one does not expect the party leadership to live like monks, but at the same time, the droit de seigneur is supposed to be something we had left behind. And while nobody would be so crude as to admit that sexual favours can help you up the greasy pole, it is not unknown for someone to suddenly get promotion following full and frank discussions with a leading comrade.

This, incidentally, is why Comrade W’s complaint is instinctively credible. These unhealthy aspects of party culture – which of course aren’t the whole story – the leadership cult, the bullying, the moral expediency, the view of comrades as pawns to be moved around the chessboard… It isn’t intrinsically unbelievable that a leading member might not take no for an answer. And that, by itself, should prompt some reflection on just how the organisation got to have such an unhealthy culture.

What next?

At this point, it’s unclear where the factional dispute is going to go. My view is that on purely moral grounds, the opposition must win, though it’s very unlikely they will. And this is without having any romantic ideas about the opposition; it’s simply that in this situation, there is a right side and a wrong side. And the current opposition are not irresponsible factionalists. The sheer cold fury you hear from people like Richard Seymour is the reaction of people who for many years have been totally loyal, totally disciplined, bitten their tongues over all sorts of things, and finally have reached a point where, asked to defend the indefensible, they have snapped.

However, the whole structure of the SWP makes an internal coup, the necessary prelude to serious housecleaning, almost impossible. And it looks as if the leadership are gearing up for a purge of the opposition, which to me indicates that they are completely delusional and insulated from the real world. In the real world, the SWP’s allies are abandoning it; in the real world, a young woman approached to join the SWP will have to ask herself whether it’s a safe environment.

The CC are currently making demagogic appeals to the party’s Millwall tendency, and not completely without success. They’ll also be heartened by the fact that John Molyneux, clapped out after years of being the token loyal critic, has finally learned to love Big Brother. Professor Callinicos, a very clever man, has laid down the line of “The party represents Leninism; the leadership embodies the party’s collective wisdom; you can’t question the line we whipped through conference because Owen Jones! Also, John Rees!” And some people are buying this. Some bozos actually believe that a few expulsions and gagging orders can sort this problem out, and everything will be back to normal by Marxism 2013 in July. As if.

My instinct at this point, and I would love to be proved wrong, is that SWP members who have rightly revolted over the handling of the Delta case will soon be ex-members. The rump of the party will be able to live off the family silver for a while but, increasingly toxic to what used to be its periphery, it will become more profoundly insular and cultish. It’s likely to end up as something analogous to the Barnes group in the States, a commercially viable bookshop with a small party attached.

As for the opposition, well, the last thing we need is to recreate the SWP in miniature form. That’s been tried too many times already. What’s really necessary is a process where people can discuss openly and think freely, and who knows? If we’re really lucky, something might emerge that’s not actually repellent to any normal human being. We can but hope.

[1] I should also say, and this may not make me popular in some quarters, that Andy Newman performed a valuable service by making the transcript public. Some details would inevitably have leaked; one would have to be a complete moron (or a member of the SWP Central Committee) to think it could have remained secret indefinitely. This means we can at least have a relatively informed debate.

[2] This area of the law is so notoriously complex that the indispensable Sexual Offences Handbook by Felicity Gerry and Catarina Sjölin, which summarises the relevant law and procedure, runs to a hefty 650 pages.

[3] This should not be taken as an indiscriminate dissing of cargo cults. The John Frum movement in Vanuatu actually took over Tanna island for a time, and continues to be represented in the parliament of Vanuatu, which is a record of achievement the SWP might envy.

[4] For example, without naming names, the recently elected CC includes one extremely inexperienced member whose sole leadership qualifications seem to be (a) being the child of a veteran party hatchet-man, and (b) a proven willingness to dob in comrades for “disloyalty”.

[5] There’s also the question of precisely which of an almost infinite variety of feminisms you’re talking about, but life’s too short.


Filed under Left Politics